Italy's Dolomites: Alps and Sauerkraut

Sept. 12, 2004 -- — Northern Italy’s dramatic Dolomites mountain range offers you some of the top mountain thrills in Europe: scenic alpine lifts and hikes, the charming towns of Castelrotto and Bolzano, and a chance to spend quality time with one of the region’s original explorers — Ötzi the Ice Man.

The village of Castelrotto makes an ideal home base for exploring the nearby Alps. With its pedestrian-only center, a thousand years of history and traditionally clad locals, it seems part of another world. If you’re in the village square weekday afternoons, you’ll see moms gather their pre-schoolers, chat, then stop by the nearby playground. Against a backdrop of mountains, Castelrotto conveys the powerful message that simple pleasures are enough.

The local folk-singing group, Kastelruther Spatzen, is a gang of hometown boys who put Castelrotto on the map. The Beatles of yodeling have a huge following here and produce “more CDs than Michael Jackson” (or so I was proudly told). The town's Hexenkeller bar, where their fan club meets, is a fun mix of beer and the group's memorabilia.

Literally up from Castelrotto is Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest high alpine meadow and your best one-stop look at the Dolomites. Measuring 8-by-20 miles and soaring up to 6,500 feet high, Alpe di Siusi is dotted with idyllic hotels and chalet restaurants, surrounded by striking Dolomite peaks and cliffs and much appreciated by hordes of walkers. Cable cars transport you to trailheads and grand views. At the park information center, you can rent mountain bikes or horses.

Hiking and (More Expensive) Skiing

The Dolomite hiking season is mid-June through mid-October. Ski season, from December through Easter, is busier and pricier. For more info on the area, see

The vast Alpe di Siusi meadow, blooming with wildflowers in summer, is popular even with cows. Munching away in this vast meadow, cows produce 10 million liters of milk annually. After tourism, dairy is the leading industry here. While cows winter in Castelrotto, they summer in Alpe di Siusi.

Bolzano, an enjoyable arcaded town of 100,000, is the gateway to the region and just the place to take a Tirolean stroll. Its South Tirol Museum of Archaeology is worth a visit to meet “Ötzi the Ice Man.” In 1991, German hikers high in the mountains near Bolzano discovered Ötzi. Initially thinking it was the corpse of a lost hiker, officials weren’t too careful in removing the body. But upon discovering his ancient hatchet, they realized what they had found — a 5,300-year-old, nearly perfectly preserved man. In the museum, you'll see Ötzi himself — still frozen — and his fascinating clothing and gear, including a two-color, finely-stitched coat, loin cloth, fancy hat, shoes, hatchet and fire-making gadgets.

While the sunny Dolomites have attracted travelers ever since Ötzi's time, local color survives in a warm, blue-aproned, ruddy-faced, felt-hat-with-feathers way. At breakfast, you’ll have yogurt served by German-speaking hosts, likely with a yodeling soundtrack. Whether you hike the trails of Alpe di Siusi or conquer the mountains only with your camera, you're experiencing an unusual part of Italy that's more like Austria than Tuscany.

Willkommen to the Italian Tirol

The Dolomite region is the only place in Italy where locals speak German first, and Italian second. A hard-fought history has left the Italian Dolomites bicultural, with an emphasis on German.

Some locals wish the region was still part of Austria. In the Middle Ages, as part of the Holy Roman Empire, the region faced north. Later, it was in the Austrian Hapsburg realm, and in the 20th century, Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region.

Today you'll see signs and literature in both languages. Most locals call Castelrotto by its German name, Kastelruth. Restaurants serve more bratwurst and sauerkraut than pasta and pizza.